History of the Kristi Company

This page is dedicated to the many men and women who built the Kristi snow vehicles. Without their help, the history of the Kristi Company would have been lost forever. Information on this page has been verified with former owners and employees of the Kristi Company. This is the real history of the Kristi Company, told by those involved with the company from the 1950s through the 1970s.

The beginning

After returning from World War II as a Marine fighter pilot, Colorado native William H. "Bill" Schomers began working on a propeller-driven vehicle capable of traveling over snow or water. The first snow plane, known as the KRISTI, was built in the late 1940s and featured two rear wooden skis and one front ski for steering. A rear-mounted, air-cooled aircraft engine and propeller pushed the vehicle. All of the snow planes had a tube chassis with a doped fabric exterior.

What made this snow plane unique was its ability to transfer weight by raising and lowering the rear skis, referred to as “Ski Action” after the stem-christie ski turn. This Ski Action not only helped the vehicle make quick turns, but also allowed it to transverse side hills. A U.S. patent was filed on the Ski Action design in 1949 and granted in January 1955.

   
Additional Snow Plane info:
  Years in production: 1949 - 1963     Snow plane brochures
  Quantity built: 7 vehicles     Snow plane historical photo gallery
        Snow plane video
 

Schomers continued to develop his snow plane until the early 1950s, when he set aside the project to join the Korean War, earning the Air Medal for Service with the 1st Marine Air Wing's "Flying Nightmares." After the war, Schomers returned to the U.S. Marine Reserves, but continued working on the snow vehicle design. Recognizing the need for a vehicle to carry more people or equipment and to travel across deep powder snow, mud and sand, he modified the design to allow a platform of either skis or tracks.

While researching track materials, Schomers met his future partner in the Kristi Company. He was visiting a supplier for hickory track cleats when someone introduced Schomers to C. B. "Bud" Messenger. Messenger was a mechanical engineer and attorney who had spent several years as an engineer in the US Navy, where he also had become familiar with patents and patent law. After leaving the service and returning to Denver, Messenger earned his law degree, specializing in patent law. Soon after their meeting, Schomers and Messenger began working together on the new snow cat, with Messenger initially helping with engineering, drawings and patent filing. Meanwhile, Schomers improved the design of the snow vehicle control system and suspension mechanism and filed an additional U.S. patent.

The first tracked Kristi was built in 1955 and was called the KRISTI Ber-Kat. Based on the tube chassis of the ski plane, the first Ber-Kat was Harley Davidson-powered, with the Harley Davidson police side-car transmission featuring three forward and one reverse gears. Later Ber-Kats used a 1200cc VW motor adapted to the Harley Davidson transmission, continuing the air-cooled, lightweight design platform. The Ber-Kats also incorporated the Kristi Ski Action, using splined extension shafts to drive the vehicle from the rear. A U.S. patent was filed on the solid bar / parallelogram tilting Ski Action in early 1954.

Schomers continued to build snow planes and Ber-Kats through early 1957, operating as a sole proprietorship. With a few employees, he was able to produce and sell four snow planes and six Ber-Kats to state, federal and private organizations across the Rocky Mountain region. Two additional snow planes were sold in 1958 and a seventh snow plane was sold to Grand Teton National Park in March of 1963. A seventh Ber-Kat was sold in late 1957.

   
Additional Ber-Kat info:
  Years in production: 1955 - 1957     Ber-Kat brochure
  Quantity built: 7 vehicles     Ber-Kat historical photo gallery
        Ber-Kat video
 

Taking the big step

On May 21st, 1957, the Kristi Company, a Colorado corporation, was formed. It had three officers: Bill Schomers, President; Bud Messenger, Vice President; and Melvin "Jim" Ross, Secretary/Treasurer. The company was located in Arvada at 5783 W. 56th Ave., and offered stock to employees and local investors. The Kristi Company continued to fill remaining orders for the Ber-Kat and snow plane, while the newest model, the Kristi Kat KT-2 with a base price of $5,125, was sent into production.

The KT-2 built on the success of the Ber-Kat, but was a radically different vehicle. One of the downfalls of the Ber-Kat was its fabric exterior, which was subject to tears from tree branches and obstacles under the snow. In addition, the process of building the tube chassis and installing the fabric exterior was labor-intensive.

By contrast, the KT-2 was constructed from a one-piece fiberglass bottom tub built on a steel chassis. It was available with a full or open cab and had seating for four with a rear hatchback door for cargo storage. Power came from a front-mounted, horizontally opposed, 1200cc VW engine with 36 horsepower. A Kristi-specific transmission was designed with eight forward and four reverse gears featuring high-low range. Other new features included brake-steer controls and an improved hydraulic Kristi Ski Action that adjusted the elevation of the individual tracks to negotiate steeper side hills.

The KT-2 track design increased to four belts per track, with the outside belts only connected at every second cleat. The outside belt configuration created excellent side hill traction by cupping over the snow to offset pack the snow around the inner drive belts. This enabled the Kristi track system to remain lighter than the conventional steel side grouser design of its competitors. The tracks were driven by the front of the vehicle with five 6” tires per side. The first KT-2 was delivered to the United States Department of Agriculture in March of 1957, and a new U.S. patent for the vehicle was filed in 1958. Because production of the KT-2 was less labor-intensive, the first KT-2 actually beat the last Ber-Kat out of the plant.

With the new KT-2 design complete and tested, Schomers headed out on the road demonstrating the vehicle to federal, state, and local government agencies along with many utility companies. In 1958, several orders were received for the KT-2, and production was in full swing. The following year was a strong one for the Kristi Company, with a total of 24 KT-2s delivered. Customers included the Federal Aviation Administration, Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph, several soil conservation agencies, fish and game agencies, the Denver Rio-Grande Railroad, a school district in Montana and a power company in Australia. The "school bus" Kristi was complete with flashing lights and stop sign that swung out.

One of the sales was to a new Colorado ski area being developed in the Vail valley by Pete Siebert and Earl Eaton. The ski area developed by Siebert and Eaton is known today as Vail Resorts, and Eaton has been quoted as saying, “It was the red Kristi Kat that sold Vail.

   
Additional KT-2 info:
  Years in production: 1957 - 1960     KT-2 brochure
  Quantity built: 28 vehicles     KT-2 historical photo gallery
        KT-2 video
        KT-2 registry
 

Building on success

The next evolution of the Kristi Kat was the KT-3. The Kristi design crew listened to its customers and incorporated their feedback into the new design. Production of the KT-3 started in 1960 with a base price of $6,295 for a full cab, and this would prove to be the best-selling Kristi Kat.

The KT-3 was approximately the same size as the KT-2, but featured a new walk-in full rear door and larger cabin area. Open and full-cab configurations were initially offered, with a half-cab option offered later in production. Optional seating configurations allowed the KT-3 to carry 5-6 passengers.

Weak areas of the KT-2 were identified and addressed in the KT-3. The industrial Porsche engine was introduced, and 30% of the KT-3s were equipped with this engine. The track design on the KT-3 was also improved, with taller 9" tires slightly increasing the ground clearance of the vehicle.

The Federal Aviation Administration was the biggest customer, purchasing 34 KT-3s, followed by the Colorado State Patrol, which bought 10 of the new Kristi Kats. Production peaked in 1962 with 33 KT-3s built and delivered. The KT-3 was sold throughout the United States and was exported to Australia, Chile, England and France. It also was used in Antarctic expeditions. Overall Kristi vehicle producion peaked in 1962 with 40 vehicles built and delivered.

The KT-3 eventually caught the eye of Jean Pomagalski of the Poma lift company in France. Pomagalski purchased a foreign license to build a Kristi KT-3 in France. Unfortunately, the design deviated too much from the license agreement and French production never started.

   
Additional KT-3 info:
  Years in production: 1960 - 1968     KT-3 brochures
  Quantity built: 110 vehicles     KT-3 historical photo gallery
        KT-3 video
        KT-3 registry

At the same time it was producing the KT-3, the Kristi Company also introduced a hybrid Kristi Kat called the KT-2A. The KT-2A was 14" shorter than the KT-3, but still utilized the walk-in rear door. It seated four, with the rear passengers facing the rear of the vehicle. The track system was a shortened KT-2 setup with four 6" wheels/tires on each side. The KT-2A with a base price of $5,985 was only available with the 36hp VW engine.

   
Additional KT-2A info:
  Years in production: 1960 - 1965     KT-2A brochure
  Quantity built: 7 vehicles     KT-2A historical photo gallery
        KT-2A video
        KT-2A registry
 

With several Kristi models in production and development, Schomers sought a bigger facility. The current facility in Arvada, Colorado was not adequate to handle the volume of Kristi vehicle production. A 25-acre plant site was identified and purchased in Boulder County. Jefferson County Bank provided the financing and drawings for the 10,000 sq. ft. StransSteel structure were completed. Construction started in 1961 at the new site, which also included testing grounds with simulated rough terrain and hillsides up to 80% slope, as well as two ponds to test and demonstrate the Kristi vehicles.

The need for a bigger Kristi

The engineering team at the Kristi Company was busy in 1960. With work on the KT-3 complete, the team started on a bigger, all-terrain vehicle. But in order to make a truly all-terrain vehicle, the Kristi would have to float.

Around this time, the company approached the U.S. military, but the German VW motor was unacceptable to the government. The new Kristi would need to be powered by an American engine. In addition to being amphibious, this new Kristi also would need to be larger and able to carry more people and payload. The solution, introduced in late 1960, was the Kristi Kat KT-4 and KT-4A.

The KT-4 and KT-4A were available in many cab configurations. Base price of a full cab KT-4 was $7,700. Two additional types of Kristi action were offered. The Kristi Water Action dropped the front or rear of the tracks for water entry and exit; this was standard on amphibious KT-4A models. The All Purpose Action allowed each corner of the vehicle to be independently lowered or raised for complete control of the track system. Company records indicate only a few KT-4s received the All Purpose Kristi action.

The KT-4 vehicle had a wider 4-belt track design with standard hickory cleats. The exhaust on a KT-4 exited the rear of the vehicle. The amphibious KT-4A (additional cost of $275) can be identified by the following characteristics: the intake and exhaust ducts exit the top of the vehicle; the tracks on the KT-4A were a two-belt design with every cleat extending the full width of the track; and the sides of KT-4A had a rubber skirt that helped to propel the vehicle in water by preventing water diversion around the track when in the up most position.

Two engines were initially offered in the KT-4, the 65hp Porsche marine engine and the 80hp Chevrolet Corvair 6-cylinder engine. Only the first four KT-4s, which were KT-4A models, had the Porsche engine and all four units were sold to the Gulf Oil Company and shipped to Africa. A Clark S70FS transmission and steering differential was used on all KT-4s, and an optional 2-speed transfer case was offered.

   
Additional KT-4 info:
  Years in production: 1961 - 1965     KT-4 brochure
  Quantity built: 19* vehicles - nine KT-4 and nine KT-4A     KT-4 historical photo gallery
        KT-4 video
 

*the KT-4JC was a unique military prototype

    KT-4 registry
 

The Kristi Company also offered a few accessories for their tracked snow vehicles. A tilt bed trailer was built in-house to carry a Kristi vehicle. Other accessories included a snow packer, luggage rack and top-mount spotlight. Visit the accessories gallery to see additional pictures of the trailers and packers.

Tragedy strikes the Kristi Company

August 22, 1961 was the day that changed the face of the Kristi Company. While on his two-week active duty with the U.S. Marine reserves, Schomers was killed in a plane crash in El Toro, California. The Kristi Company had many orders on the books for Kristi snow vehicles, so work continued. Vice-President Bud Messenger took the reigns as President of the Kristi Company. Shop foreman and brother-in-law to Schomers, Nathan Ray, was elected Vice-President of the Kristi Company. Both Messenger and Ross stepped up and became full-time employees at Kristi to keep the company running efficiently. Ross took over as primary salesman for the Kristi vehicles. The KT-3 remained the top-selling Kristi in 1961 comprising 80% of the 34 units sold.

The year 1962 marked the height of Kristi vehicle sales with 39 vehicles rolling out the doors of the new facility located at 10401 West 120th Avenue in Broomfield, Colorado. With almost 90 Kristi vehicles in the field at this point, the Kristi parts and repair business added to the bottom line. The Thiokol Company, located in Logan Utah, also built similar sized snow vehicles and competed with Kristi for government contracts. Messenger started work on a new vehicle to compete for market share.

The poor snow season of 1962-1963 along with a saturation of the small snow vehicle market had a direct effect on new vehicle sales of the Kristi Kats. Kristi reacted to the slowdown by cutting personnel by 50%, down to 10 employees, and a capital loss was recorded at the Kristi Company. With only 13 vehicles produced in 1963, the Federal Aviation Administration was still the largest customer. Seasonal vehicle repairs and parts sales helped Kristi during the slowdown.

A new direction for the Kristi vehicle

Messenger started development work on a new Kristi vehicle in 1963. The U.S. Army had received several KT-4 test vehicles the previous year, and feedback gained from the Army’s Air Terminal Operations Center was the driving force behind the new vehicle development. This new vehicle, named the KT-4G, was designed with the aim to reduce costs by maximizing use of standard automotive parts. Kaiser Jeep supplied the CJ-series universal frame and body, while power was delivered by a Chevrolet 6-cylinder engine mated to a Clark four-speed transmission and steering differential. The new Chevrolet engine was water-cooled, allowing for a car-like heating system.

In order to further reduce costs and compete for government contracts against the larger American-built snow cat competitors, the KT-4G was designed without the patented Kristi Ski Action. It featured a new type of torsion bar suspension with a center leaf sprung walking beam independent of the front and rear wheels that improved ride quality. In addition, provisions for a snowplow were standard on the KT-4G. Design and fabrication of the KT-4G was completed in 1964 and tested extensively at the Broomfield facility.

   
Additional KT-4G info:
  Years in production: 1964     KT-4G brochures
  Quantity built: 2 vehicles     KT-4G historical photo gallery
        KT-4G video
 

Because of the focus on developing the KT-4G, 1964 was another slow year for new vehicle sales, with only 12 new vehicles sold. One notable sale was a KT-4 delivered to a large cattle ranch in the Texas panhandle used to feed cattle buried by a large snowstorm.

Messenger’s efforts to reach a wider field of customers resulted in another variation of the KT-4G. Aimed at providing an all-year-round vehicle to attract farmers, ranchers, sportsmen and the utility industry, the KWT was the biggest Kristi to be built and the only one to have a VIN from a major automotive manufacturer. The vehicle, designed by Messenger, started out as a standard Chevrolet pickup chassis that was modified by moving the cab up and forward to provide clearance for the application of tracks.

This new design used a drive-sprocket, hydraulic- track steering mechanism on the front of the vehicle to move the vehicle with the tracks installed. The tracks were designed to install over the vehicle’s rubber tires allowing quick installation and removal. Intermediate bogey wheels were easily installed between the front and rear wheels while the tracks were installed. In addition, the tracks and bogey wheels could be removed and stowed in the bed of the truck, allowing the vehicle to be driven on public highways.

Messenger filed a U.S. patent for this new design in 1964. Most of the competitors’ designs used a braking system to steer the tracked vehicle that not only took power from the vehicle during a turn, but also quickly overheated the brake system. Instead of applying brakes to the inside track, the KWT would speed up the outside track. With the drive sprocket accelerating the outside track, the conventional automotive rear axle differential would slow the inside track. When fitted with tracks, the front tires were locked in a straight-ahead configuration, and the KWT was controlled by a single lever mounted to the steering column. With the tracks removed, the KWT drove like a normal pickup truck.

A single hydraulic motor, built by the Char-Lynn company, was used to control all aspects of the track drive and steering system. The hydraulic system, driven by a standard PTO, could be used to operate a winch, power boom, snowplow or various other items attached to the KWT as well as the track system. The hydraulic motor would propel the KWT to 35 M.P.H. on tracks and enabled it to climb slopes up to 80%.

The KWT prototype was completed in the summer of 1964 and caught the attention of the U.S. Army, Air Force and Navy. Interest in the patented design also came from other government contractors that provided vehicles for transporting everything from people to missiles.

The hydraulic motor from the Char-Lynn company had been modified by Kristi to get additional torque needed to move the KWT. While the motor had no problem initiating a turn on snow, it struggled in soft pack gravel. The next larger size motor was three times larger than the existing motor and would not fit on the KWT. The U.S. Navy was ready to purchase the KWT and send it to Antarctica as soon as the hydraulic motor was upgraded.

Char-Lynn promised a larger hydraulic motor, but it was not delivered until December 1965. The larger motor from Char-Lynn was a prototype, however, and did not perform as expected, so development of the KWT was abandoned in the summer of 1966. The KWT eventually was sold to Safety One Inc. in 1978 for $500.00.
 
   
Additional KWT info:
  Years in production: 1964     KWT brochures
  Quantity built: 1 prototype     KWT historical photo gallery
        KWT video
 

With all of the attention given to the KWT, new vehicle sales in 1965 increased to 14 vehicles. The company continued to produce the KT-4, and of the final six models built in 1965, two were purchased by the Florida Bureau of Fisheries & Wildlife in a KT-4A configuration. The last KT-2A was also sold in 1965, ending production of that model.

After abandoning the KWT design in 1966, Kristi revived the Jeep chassis and body concept, using the smaller and lighter Jeep Universal chassis. This allowed the previously underpowered Char-Lynn hydraulic motor to propel the Jeep with ease on snow or dirt. The hydraulic motor was initially installed on a Jeep chassis with the KT-4G torsion bar suspension. Tests were successful, and so was born the KT-6. A trip to Kaiser Jeep in the fall of 1966 allowed Messenger to select the exact parts needed to go into production of the new KT-6. Messenger also visited the U.S. Army Mobility Command headquarters in Michigan to introduce the new KT-6.

In production form, the KT-6 would have used a Jeep V6 engine with a 4-speed transmission and complete CJ-5 body. The 4wd Jeep running gear, standard on the Jeep, also would be used to provide the KWT-like wheels and track-drive system. The Jeep power train parts specified for the KT-6 were the same parts used by Jeep to provide the Department of Defense the M-175 1 1/4 ton trucks.

The last few years in Colorado

In late 1966, Messenger put together a bid for the U.S. Air Force to build 42 vehicles using the design of the KT-6 wheeled and track system utilizing a hydraulic motor to drive the tracks. The Kristi Company was one of only two bidding companies to present acceptable vehicle designs. The other company was Thiokol, which ultimately won the contract by $170 per vehicle. With much of the focus on the KWT and KT-6 in 1966, new vehicle sales consisted of seven KT-3 and two KT-4G vehicles.

During this time, the Kristi Company continued to refurbish used Kristi vehicles. Many of the Kristi vehicles were purchased from General Services Administration (GSA) auctions, refurbished, and resold. The parts business and seasonal repairs division of Kristi continued, but left little money for research and development. The KT-6 was on the verge of going into production, but capital was needed to take the next step.

The Kristi Company had loans from the Small Business Administration and Jefferson County Bank. Messenger put together documents to extend these loans in 1967 and sought additional money to continue the KT-6 project. The additional funding was not secured and the company struggled in 1967 with only two KT-3 models sold in January of 1967.

The doors were closed for good at the Broomfield facility in early 1968. The Kristi Company sold the building and other assets to repay the SBA and Jefferson County Bank loans. The remainder of the parts and Kristi vehicles were moved to Denver Colorado. Messenger and family continued to purchase used Kristi vehicles, refurbish and resell them. Parts were still provided by Messenger up to 1971.

A new start for Kristi

In the summer of 1971, Dwight Baker of Issaquah, Washington purchased some of the assets of the Kristi Company and a patent license to use the Kristi design. Fabrication jigs and fixtures, machine tools (including a mill) and extra KT-3 parts were all loaded on a trailer and hauled to Washington. Baker starting locating used KT-3 vehicles to recondition and sell. In the fall of 1971, Baker set up a small shop in Leavenworth Washington and hired a few local employees to start refurbishing the KT-3s he had located.

Baker, a chemical engineer and former Boeing employee, approached the Federal Aviation Administration with a plan to build a new Kristi vehicle using a modern power train design. The FAA awarded Baker a contract to build the prototype Kristi and advanced him capital to get the project started.

Baker recruited several Boeing engineers to help with new design of the Kristi, initially named the KT3-300A. This new Kristi was designed as a fiberglass body vehicle with doors on the front and rear, and with the patented Kristi Action suspension and track design. The power plant in the new Kristi was a mid-mounted water-cooled Ford industrial V4 engine. Power to the tracks was delivered hydrostatically, and a unique aircraft steering console was designed to control the vehicle.

Parts and materials for six vehicles were initially ordered. A fiberglass boat manufacturer built the first body, and the prototype was quickly assembled. The prototype was much too heavy, so the fiberglass body was scrapped. The boat manufacturer produced three lighter bodies and three vehicles were built.
 

   
Additional KT7 info:
  Years in production: 1973     KT7 historical photo gallery
  Quantity built: 3 vehicles     KT7 registry
 

Design and fabrication of the new Kristi, later named the KT7 with a base price of $10,980, took longer than expected. In late fall of 1973, the FAA received two KT7 prototypes to test on the Grand Mesa in Colorado. The FAA had many requirements for this new vehicle, including a minimum potential speed of 20 mph. The FAA contract was vague, and the KT7 performed as required in Leavenworth, Washington at an elevation of 1,200 feet. When the FAA tests were conducted on the Grand Mesa at an elevation of 10,000 feet, the KT7 did not perform as required.

The FAA cancelled the contract and requested the capital be returned immediately. Baker had customer deposits for two KT-7s — for a rancher in New Mexico and for San Juan County in Utah.  San Juan County received their KT7 in December 1973. While on a trip back from recovering equipment for the phone company, the KT7 caught fire and burned to the ground after only a few weeks of service. No people were hurt in the fire, but the KT7 was a total loss.

The rancher in New Mexico received his KT7 at a reduced rate to help the cash flow problem at Kristi. This Kristi was used for several years on the ranch but was eventually sold to a snowmobile club for grooming trails. The KT7 changed hands a few times before ending up in California. The current owner has restored the KT7.

The third KT7 was used by Baker in 1974 for private contract work in the state of Washington. The last known location of the third KT7 was Washington State. Baker and the Kristi Company ran out of money and closed the business in 1974. The assets of the Kristi Company in Washington were moved from the shop in Leavenworth and stored in an employee’s barn until they were disposed of when the employee died in the 1990s.

The first Kristi was developed during the post-World War II economic boom and starting out as a recreational vehicle. The Kristi Ski Action was an idea to make a snow plane turn quicker and grew into a business spanning over two decades. The Kristi Ski Action is unique to Kristi vehicles; no other manufacturer has incorporated the design into their vehicles. The Kristi Company provided a small and high performance vehicle for all-terrain conditions over 25 years ago, many of these Kristi vehicles are still used today.
     


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